Sound as an Inexhaustible Source of Knowledge
Report from a Master Class by Steven Feld
Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz




Martin Lauer


Sound is a medium which connects all animate and inanimate objects in the world into a network of relationships. While in the past, sound’s fleeting nature discouraged many from diving deeper into its complexities, the sheer fascination with sound of many avant-garde artists and adventurous scholars, along with the development of sound recording technologies, have greatly contributed to the increased interest in sound over the last 50 years.


Therefore, it finally seems that sound is earning its due attention in academic, art and scientific circles. Moreover, sound’s immensity has brought specialists from very diverse fields and the arts closer together and has given rise to many interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborations. Acoustemology is a case in point. Drawing on approaches from the social sciences, humanities as well as natural sciences, acoustemology focuses on the study of sound and its significance in a given culture, thus filling in the methodological niche in ethnomusicology and anthropology and reevaluating their paradigms.

The term acoustemology, a portmanteau word of “acoustics” and “epistemology”, was coined by Steven Feld, a pioneering American scholar who has spent nearly 50 years doing research on the musical forms of different cultures and their relationships to sound. He is proficient in the fields of the anthropology of music, ethnomusicology, cultural theory, and linguistics; and on top of that, is an active musician, filmmaker, sound artist and field recordist. In his seminal book on acoustemology, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression, he undertakes a multi-faceted study of the sonic perception and sensibility of the Kaluli tribe living in the central Papuan region around the Bosavi mountain, and describes the culturally and environmentally deep symbiotic relationship that Kaluli foster with its avifauna. His work with the Kaluli also resulted in the Rykodisc CD Voices of the Rainforest, featuring his field recordings, presenting the rainforest soundscape and Kaluli singing, music making and other sonic activities which triggered the trend of radio programs (later podcasts) making use of field recordings in the 1990s. In 2016, the original tape recordings from the 1991 CD were recomposed in the 7.1 format and used as a soundtrack in the 65-minute Voices of the Rainforest documentary showing one day in the life of the Bosavi rainforest and its inhabitants, which was screened for the first time in Europe at the lecture series in Mainz. The Voices of the Rainforest CD as well as the film of the same name can be previewed at

Acoustemology happened to be the topic of a three-day public lecture series and master class under the direction of Steven Feld, organized by the Department of Anthropology and African Studies as part of their Anthrolopology of Music series at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz between 26-28 June. The three-day masterclass offered an opportunity for students and artists to present their research findings and discuss their work with leading scholars in the field, including Feld himself. In general, students brought a wide spectrum of conceptual approaches for analyzing sound, music and listening, including those of acoustemology, ethnomusicology, bioacoustics, psychoacoustics, made use of practices developed from deep listening, acoustic ecology and soundscape studies, and often worked with field recordings.

Among the research projects, which stood out for their novel point-of-view and captivating subject matter, was Tyler Yamin’s complex reevaluation of the conservation efforts to analyze and utilize vocalizations of endangered gibbons for the purposes of their compulsory reproduction, Lucie Poskočilová’s engaging study mapping the modes of listening of prisoners and their music-making activities in the prison environment, and Burcu Yaşin’s project focused on the forms of acoustic communication within a Roma community living in the Sarıgöl neighbourhood in central İstanbul and their personal reflections of the changing urban soundscape of İstanbul. The lecture series and masterclass concluded with a soundwalk through the city on Saturday.

Living and Thinking Sound

As Feld himself noted in his first lecture, he devised acoustemology in the early 1990s in an effort to overcome the confines of musical anthropology and ethnomusicology which, according to him, heavily relied on structural, cognitive, semiotic and especially symbolical paradigms that seemed to be “choking” these studies. Instead he wanted to “fully embrace phenomenological and sensory approaches to cultural knowledge production, practice and circulation.” In the Bosavi rainforest context, acoustemology provided Feld the analytic means for discovering “the grounds for cohabitation, multispecies interactions and ecological and aesthetic coevolution.” In short, he discovered what a tremendous source of knowledge the birds and other species represent to the Kaluli people. In addition to signifying spatial dimensions such as distance and height for them and being the source of myths and inspiration for many forms of their cultural expression, birds are also deemed to be the embodiments of the spirits of their ancestors.

It is interesting that even before the word “acoustemology” was ever pronounced or written, its theoretical standpoints were exemplified by the field recordings of the Voices of the Rainforest recordings, which conveyed these intimate relationships between the people and birds, as well as other species, mediated through sound. It is nevertheless ironic that at that time this first acoustemological manifesto was less comprehensible to anthropologists and scholars, who went as far as to call it “primitivist” and stated that Feld “denied Bosavi its modernity,” than it was to the sound art community and the people who contributed to it.

Another of Feld's notable accomplishment is his ongoing project Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra, which has generated one book, five films and ten CD recordings, and in which he traces the musical activities of African musicians in Ghana who are strongly influenced by American jazz. Having played, recorded and lived with the musicians and mixed in the Accra avant-garde jazz scene for almost two decades, Feld is well-suited for analyzing cross-cultural influences and cosmopolitan sensibilities that shape the identities and musical endeavours of these musical adventurers.

Jazz as an Instrument of Universal Struggle

The avant-garde jazz scene in the African urban context of Accra was also the primary focus of Feld’s first lecture at the French Institute in Mainz. In it, Feld attempted to revisit the body of knowledge he accumulated over the years and view it from the acoustemological perspective, i.e. how sound as a way of knowing creates “transborder sensibilities across vast expanses of space and time.” Feld’s talk centered on two musicians, with whom he has been involved in over the years: saxophonist, instrument inventor and sculptor Nii Noi Nortey and his bandmate, percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Nii Otoo Annan.

A pioneering saxophone player and leader of the band Accra Trane Station indulging in a mix of Coltranian cool-jazz and improvisation on Ghanaian and self-made “afrifone” instruments, Nii Noi fell for the refined meandering melodic style of Coltrane when he heard his album A Love Supreme. Just as his mentor, “grandfather of Afro-jazz” Guy Waren (Ghanaba), who studied music and performed in the USA in the 50s and 60s, but returned home disillusioned by the racially-biased and commodified nature of jazz in the US, Nii Noi was granted a full scholarship to study at the London School of Economics. Yet he soon dropped out, bought a saxophone and returned to Ghana. Opting for exploration of sound and freedom of expression, he started making his “afrifone” instruments and decided to fight against jazz being employed as a tool of neo-colonialism. According to Feld, what Nii Noi’s artworks and music attest to, are the conflicts between being African and being avant-garde, being rooted and cosmopolitan, which manifest themselves through what Feld calls “vernacular cosmopolitanism.” The way Nii Noi relates to the world as well as to Ghana transcends the borders of his country and the time in which he lives, consisting of an assemblage of universal sensibilities and identities, such as black pride, Pan-Africanism, Rastafarianism and many other elements. All these elements of his identity tie into one another and complement each other and coalesce as the vehicle of his expression – improvised jazz and socially subversive art.

Nii Otoo Annan, Nii Noi’s long-time percussionist and a member of many jazz and gospel bands in the Accra area, which has earned him the nickname “the Elvin Jones of West Africa”, is much more conciliatory in his choice of musical influences. Growing up in the 60s and listening to the Voice of America radio, he worked under the assumption that all music played on this station was performed by African-Americans (which clearly was not true). As a result, American music, especially jazz, became a source of his racial pride. His solo album Ghana Sea Blues, on which Nii Otoo took helm of all the instruments and vocals, reveals inspiration by more mainstream strains of jazz than Nii Noi. On this record, Nii Otoo pays a tribute to Dave Brubeck, among other artists, with his Africa Take Five – a reworking of one of the most popular and most frequently cited and circulated tunes in jazz history Take Five, incidentally composed by saxophonist Paul Desmond, a player in Brubeck’s quartet. Stretching the composition’s signature 5/4 rhythm motif into a 6/4 rhythm, elaborating the harmony in the West-African guitar style and complementing it with various Ghanaian percussion instruments, Africa Take Five seems to convey how well jazz lends itself to new elaborations and recontextualizations.

In a broader context, the music of both of these musical figures exposes different histories of listening and their diverse outcomes in an effort to overcome the monolithic, nationalistic and totalizing narratives of jazz, such as those promulgated by white American critics in the 50s and 60s. Feld’s cosmopolitanism in Accra project exposes how maneuvering within relations of power shapes intentional self-making processes in a cosmopolitan situation in which one finds oneself continually split and belonging to two (or more) places at once.

Entangled in Sound

The two remaining talks that Feld gave revolved around his research in the Bosavi region, which was nevertheless, infused with new perspectives. In attempting to elaborate on the patterns of social exchange of the Kaluli and on nostalgia as a way of coping with unreconciled historical experience, Feld focused his first lecture on the boom of string bands in Bosavi in the 90s, which marked the first autonomous cultural art form of the young Papuans who were the first generation to grow up in independent Papua New Guinea under the influence of evangelical missionaries and in the regular presence of anthropologists. In a social environment dominated by everyday giving and taking, Feld strived to exemplify, in one particular acoustic guitar duo, how Papuans relate to the past by way of musical expression and how they pay their social debt to each other. One of the songs of the Kemuli String Band is titled My Father, My Heart, recorded by Feld for the 3-CD box set Bosavi Rainforest, evokes the ceremonial singing in the rites for the deceased in its frequent use of the crying voice, which alludes to the most salient feature of the memorial poetry of men’s ritual songs and women’s funerary weeping for the recently deceased. According to Feld, the role of the “cry break” here, which also happens to be a technique used in old country music, is to resignify the power of the past, because for the Bosavi, the crying voice has always suggested that no one escapes the past and the memory.

Interestingly, the release of the 3-CD box set Bosavi Rainforest Music featuring, among others, the songs of string bands from Papua New Guinea, coincided with a revived interest in country and bluegrass music that occurred after 9/11 in the US. Triggered by the enormously successful soundtrack to the Cohen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou, this peculiar rebirth of sentiments for the past driven by idealized representations of the back country also left its mark on the reception of the Bosavi CDs, whose performers were described with such unlikely monikers as the “Bosavi hillbillies” and the “Soggy-Bottom Boys of Papua” in reviews. However, in trying to distinguish between these starkly opposing forms of nostalgia, Feld stressed the reflective and additive process of the Bosavi looking back at their past, which promotes social cohesion and solidarity unlike the socially manipulative, “restorative” nostalgia such as the one experienced in the USA after 9/11 which, in the long run, propelled a wave of nationalism and racism, exemplified by such closed-minded ideologically fashioned constructs as “Make America Great Again.”

In the Sonic Embrace of Cicadas

Yet, it was in his last lecture that Professor Feld made the most compelling statement for acoustemology and its vital role in capturing the interrelationality between species in the culturally productive activities of music making and listening. As suggested by the title of his lecture, “Hearing Heat,” the talk revolved around the synaesthetic entanglements of perceptive and expressive faculties of humans and animals in the context of the accelerated climatic and geological changes of the Anthropocene.

Significantly, Feld started his lecture by outlining how the Bosavi conception of the self is inextricably bound to their surroundings: “In Bosavi, personhood emphasizes temporally and spatially proliferating relations over individuated identity,” while these include not only relations with other humans, but also with spirits, places and non-humans. Therefore in Papua, as in other Melanesian cultures, a person, or rather the concept of a person, is never about being a complete entity, but rather about the possibility of “being completed in an ever expansive relational nexus with the living, non-living and material forms.” Since Feld’s innovative research with the Bosavi in the 70s was focused precisely on the relation between humans and birds, which convey to them temporal as well as spatial whereabouts through their alternating overlapping and interlocking sounds, the relationships formed by these sounds essentially co-create people’s identities in Bosavi. Moreover, the Bosavi call these sounds “voices” and in their thinking, they are never totalized as birds. Instead, they are known as ane mama, or gone reverberations or reflections. And reverberations is what humans become when they achieve death.

However important the presence of birds is for the Bosavi, they are not the only representatives of the rainforest soundscape which affect them. Insects, and especially cicadas, also play a vital role in their lives. Cicadas are thermometric and are therefore driven to produce sound by changes in temperature. When males record a heat wave, they set into motion their paired tymbals, with which they produce their idiosyncratic loud, pulsing sound. Therefore, when a heatwave ran through the rainforest, the cicadas were activated, and a Bosavi woman Ulahi was driven to sing by the cicadas. After all, sound and heat are both spectral and “get under the skin,” as Feld pointed out.

After analyzing the textual as well as sonic elements of the recording of Ulahi’s improvised song to the cicadas’ chirping, he discovered not only how all the linguistic elements of Ulahi’s song were randomly assembled on the spot to create a phonaesthetic expressive form, but also how cicadas joined her song and gathered around the second, third and fourth harmonics of Ulahi’s voice once she started singing. Bridging the gap between the phonetic and signifying properties of language, Ulahi’s voice penetrated into the cicada sound niche around the note C8 just above 4 KHz. Feld called this coalescence of culture and nature “spectral embrace” and poignantly summarised that in the “relational music conservatory of the rainforest, Ulahi’s language is about sound while sounding language.”

Jumping twenty years ahead to the time when the sounds of industrial logging, mining and resource extraction have become the dominant features of Papuan soundscapes, Feld referred to a poster of a local environmental NGO. The poster informed the reader that in the past, Papuans acquired knowledge about seasons and the climate by listening closely to cicadas and used cicada sounds to determine and measure time. The middle part of the poster featured an image of a cicada with a speech bubble rising from its head addressing the reader in Tok Pisin, the Lingua Franca of Papua New Guinea. The cicada, which was essentially portrayed as having a voice and thoughts of it own, was “saying” that if people look out for it and protect it, it will continue to support them and promote their livelihood. If not, it will die and everything it did to support people will disappear with it. To suggest wider context for framing this interrelationality between species, Feld invoked Donna Haraway’s famous treatise Companion species manifesto.

Inspired by this self-set course, Feld focused his attention on the significance of cicada sounds in the seminal work of Japanese cinema, Yasujirō Ozu‘s 1953 film Tokyo Story, and further elaborated on the use of these sounds as sonic signs of the “unstable, ephemeral and impermanent.” The cicada sounds are employed here acousmatically as a figure of sonic representation of rural Japan, then they disappear as the plot moves to Tokyo and only return towards the end of the film to signal the inevitability of death. According to Feld, it is no mere coincidence that the film is set partly in the village of the Hiroshima prefecture, encumbered by then recent history. In relating the cicada sounds to the Hiroshima atomic bomb explosion of 1945, which Feld perceives as the act heralding the advent of the Anthropocene with its unprecedented impacts on the chemical composition of our planet, he touches upon the film’s major topic of the disappearance of the traditional way of life caused by the onset of modernity. Taking us to modern day Japan, Feld recounts how the Hiroshima bombings are sonically remembered every year on August 6 at 8:15 am by the ringing of the pagoda bell in the Hiroshima Peace Park. And cicadas naturally provide the sonic backdrop to this memorial as the gathered crowds of people subside into silence in anticipation of the bell striking.

Then winding the clock backwards, Feld returned to Ancient Greece to allude to the Socratic dialogue Phaedrus whose natural setting under a tree by a lush riverbank is likewise accompanied by a chorus of cicadas. Based on the myth, which Socrates recounts to Phaedrus, cicadas used to be humans, who were enchanted by the Muses and driven into incessant singing and dancing, as a result of which they forgot to eat and drink and died. As a reward for their devotion, the Muses changed them into insects, which can sing continuously without any need for sustenance, and assigned them the task of monitoring which humans honor the muses and which do not. In order to make sure that cicadas speak well of them, Socrates bids Phaedrus not to “fall asleep to the synaesthetic drone [of the cicadas] and engage in vigorous dialectic.” Thus, from Feld’s point of view, rhetoric takes over, linking the power of the voice as attraction to its rhetorical power as persuasion and to seal this coalescence of affect and reason, Socrates proclaims: “Eros and eloquence leave the listeners spellbound like a heatwave.”

In conclusion, Feld stressed how in all these different contexts, cicadas assume the role of dominant representatives of their sonic environment who promote togetherness and mutuality and are endowed with the power to drive humans to action: When Anthropocene reaches Papua New Guinea, the “spectral embrace of cicadas and Ulahi’s voice” heralds a deep legacy of political ecology; in the dawn of the Anthropocene in Japan, cicadas poetically convey the impermanence of all living organisms in the post-nuclear era and sonically remind us of the suffering of its victims; and finally, in Greece cicadas shift the affective background to the rhetorical foreground to voice the connection of rising climate changes to rising vulnerability. In short, Feld proclaims that cicadas are the “thermometers of this Anthropocenic disaster.”

Amplifying Sonic Knowledge

Asking himself what should be the role of scholars, artists and all people, who work with sound recordings and/or are engaged in close contact with indigenous communities, Feld finds the answer in amplification. But what can acoustemology amplify? According to Feld, it should try hard to make audible the kind of knowledge that Ulahi displayed when she sang with the cicadas, along with the fact that such field recordings not only have an artistic and ethnographic value, but also an inherently ecological and political message these days. Therefore, we should assume the role of “DJs” and “spin relational ties” by playing such playlists, in which Ulahi’s voice can stand next to contemporary classical music, jazz, rock or even noise and electronic music.

To sum up, in Steven Feld’s acoustemological explorations, sound represents an ever expanding nexus of relations, practices, memories and other shared and transmitted forms of knowledge which cluster around it and form a complex environment. The relationality of sound perhaps represents its most salient attribute as it is in the creation (or co-creation) of sound, its presentation and its subsequent reception that mutuality between animate and non-animate objects is established and relational ties proliferate.

However, acoustemology is not at all almighty in capturing sound’s immensity. As Steven Feld eventually pointed out, acoustemology does not provide us with a finite set of tools for disentangling the intricacies of sound; these have to be discovered on-the-go and anew in every context. Nevertheless, if we fully submit ourselves to sound and let it guide us, it may very well steer us in a new, unthought-of direction. After all, sound is endowed with infinite potential and it is only up to us, the listeners, as well as producers of sound, to open up to its abundance and navigate through its many winding and often unsuspected courses. And especially now, faced with the global challenges of rising temperature and mass extinction of species, is the time to immerse ourselves in sound and learn as much as we can from it.

Martin Lauer

Photographs: Laila Fan
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